CouncilBusiness Team Works On Floor English

May 17, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — The language of business has become increasingly complex with the rising number of non-English speaking workers, particularly in the manufacturing and hospitality.

But the Kent County Literacy Council, with the support of several local businesses and organizations, is working to make communication in the workplace a lot less confusing.

For 15 years the nonprofit has provided one-on-one reading tutoring for adults as well as instruction in English as a Second Language (ESL).

Now the agency is applying its experience in tutoring to the need for businesses to train an expanding non-English speaking workforce through a Customized Workplace English training program that delivers instruction in specific, work-based English directly to company worksites.

The project is the most significant undertaking in the council’s history in terms of its scope and cost, said Susan Ledy, executive director.

Council members figured it would take $300,000 and three years to develop the program to the point that it could become self-sufficient. They were able to raise $202,000 and are still seeking funding to support the third year of operation.

The goal is to have the program self-sufficient and funded 100 percent by program fees by the end of the third year.

“Part of the process is to get out there and get into companies so we can serve more people, but at the same time we’ll be bringing in Workplace Literacy revenue from participating companies, as well,” Ledy said. 

The $202,000 was underwritten by the Grand Rapids Community, Steelcase, Kellogg and Slemons foundations and by National City Bank, Alticor Inc., and Lacks Enterprises.

Since the program kicked off in December, the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce has been marketing it to its 3,500 member companies as a member benefit, which entitles them to a 10 percent discount. 

Marketing assistance also is provided by The Right Place Program, the Employers Association, Grand Rapids Community College, Kent Intermediate School District, Michigan Economic Development Corp. and the Workforce Development Board.  

John Brown, president of the local chamber, said what the chamber really liked about the program was that it catered to the language needs of a variety of workers, whether Hispanic, Croat, Serb, Bosnian or some other nationality. 

“That oftentimes is the case,” he said. “You may have several languages as the first language for some employees and this is a way you can put them in the same setting and learn the language skills they need for that workplace.”

Steve Alexander, president of the Literacy Council and regional president of National City Bank, said during the past three years there has been an increasing number of requests from companies for English as a Second Language (ESL) and reading instruction at work for their employees.

In fact, The Employers Association conducted a survey of its 123 member companies, and 43 percent of them indicated language barriers were a concern.

According to Kent County census data, the Hispanic population increased by 45 percent and the Asian population by 63 percent between 1990 and 1998.

The Census Bureau projects the Asian and Hispanic populations in Kent County will increase 56 percent and 43 percent, respectively, by 2010.

But the census data doesn’t account for refugee resettlement from countries such as Ethiopia, Sierra Leone and Bosnia that has taken place in Grand Rapids over the past five years. In three years, more than 5,000 Bosnians have settled here, according to the Catholic Human Development Office

“A few of us on the board, me included, spend a lot of time with businesses and recognized there was a need out there for English as a second language in the workplace,” Alexander said.

“There are competitors out there, but the demand far outweighs the supply. If you talk to manufacturers, there just is not enough tutoring available.”

That led the Literacy Council to conduct a pilot ESL program at MichCor Container Co. involving nine Hispanic employees. And that led to the Customized Workplace English program.

Eight companies have used Customized Workplace English training thus far, Ledy said.

The service is delivered on site to groups of 10 or less to keep with the Literacy Council’s philosophy of individualized learning, she noted. The program involves a needs assessment and eight weeks of instruction, along with pre- and post-testing. 

“This is sort of a work in progress in the sense that there really isn’t a good model out there for us to follow, so we’re forging new territory here,” Ledy observed. “We’re learning as we go that companies need to look at it not as just one class, but as a program for their companies. It may take one class or it may take four.”

Seven ESL instructors are assigned to the program and paid on a contractual basis, which is why companies are charged for the service, Ledy said.

The first step is talking with the supervisors who deal with employees who don’t speak English.

Supervisors’ input is essential to the success of the program if a company really wants to see an impact on the plant floor, Ledy said.

One participating company is Behr Industries, where the employee pool includes Asians, Hispanics, Bosnians and Vietnamese who speak little or no English.

The Behr project has been helped along with a grant from the Michigan Department of Career Development.

     In the first phase of the Behr project, one class was held once a week for one group and another twice a week for a second group, and their progress was compared.  Both classes used customized materials designed around Behr supervisor input.

The second eight-week phase, which concludes at the end of the month, has involved two groups using standardized ESL textbooks geared to the workplace rather than materials customized to Behr.

“We want to find out if it makes a difference if we customize, and our theory is that it does,” Ledy said.

Following the first phase, 78 percent of supervisors agreed that communication between supervisors and associates had improved and said they were confident associates understood the directions given. All participating employees agreed their English had improved.

Behr employees have been attending classes during the workday and getting paid for it, a practice Ledy says gives workers more incentive to participate.

Jim Dybevik, Behr’s Human Resources manager, said that of the 640 people Behr employs, about 10 percent are Asian and Vietnamese, 10 percent are Bosnian and about 15 percent are Hispanic.

Company policy now requires that new hires be able to speak and write English at a basic level, and since Behr hires through temporary employment agencies, the policy serves as an initial screen, Dybevik said.

“But we also knew there were many good, good workers already in our shop here and we wanted to enhance their speaking abilities a little bit.”

He said employees’ confidence levels have increased as a result of the program.

“You can tell that they’ve enjoyed the class and they want to even do some more to take the next step.”

As for Behr supervisors, they’ve witnessed more interaction and more communication on the plant floor, Dybevik said. “It’s just a big positive.”

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